Renowned and multiple-award-winning clarinetist, composer and educator Dr. Michael White came to learn that just performing New Orleans jazz was not enough. Part of the deal was carrying on the tradition for future generations.
“It came as a result of circumstances,” White explains. “I was playing with a lot of older musicians [born between the late 1890s and 1910] and at the time many of them got sick and started dying out so I ended up having a lot of hospital visits. The thing that started recurring over and over, which I found strange at the time, was that a lot of them would say stuff like, ‘It’s up to you to keep this music going.’ I thought it was really strange that somebody was dying and they were thinking about music.”
In time, White began to comprehend traditional jazz’s importance in this city’s culture that went beyond the music’s entertainment value.
“What I came to realize, is that one of the liberating forces of the music when it originated was to help black people overcome this imposed status of invisibility,” he says.
White first played with trumpeter and bandleader Doc Paulin’s band from 1975 until 1979. Again, it wasn’t just musical lessons Paulin provided but, says the clarinetist, the “spiritual values of the tradition.” The veteran bandleader stressed the importance of properly representing the culture by wearing the correct attire, being punctual and taking care of business. “He gave me a foundation,” says White of Paulin.
The clarinetist’s next stop was with the “second generation” of the Fairview Baptist Church Band, led by another wise veteran musician, guitarist/banjoist and composer Danny Barker.
“He and Doc together were two very important sources coming from different perspectives but also sharing certain similarities,” the clarinetist suggests.
White, 64, got what some might consider a late start in the world of New Orleans jazz. Inspired by his clarinet-playing aunt and encouraged by his parents, he began playing his life-long instrument as a student of Edwin Hampton at St. Augustine High School.
It wasn’t until he was in college that jazz sparked his interest. Around 1974, he started going to the Maple Leaf on Saturday nights when the Uptown club presented jazz. That’s where he met trumpeter Gregg Stafford, who he had previously heard leading the Young Tuxedo Band at Jazz Fest. The two, who many would consider like-minded in their passion for traditional jazz, finally got together when Stafford asked the clarinetist to sit with the Tuxedo one afternoon at Tulane University’s quad. They’ve continued to perform together ever since.
“Gregg came up as a kid hearing and seeing the music of the brass bands in the community,” White says. “We would talk about the music and as the older musicians passed, it became more apparent that a lot of the other guys were playing a different style even if they were playing traditional songs.”
“I got more interested in the history of music and the meaning of it,” he continues. “So I got into the early styles more than the revival style that most of the older guys played. I started to focus more on the idea of style.”
“Some people think that New Orleans jazz is just a simple set of songs so if you just play them you’re playing it. Others recognize that New Orleans jazz is a style—a language. You can do anything within its guidelines and rules.”
“The principles of the style can apply to many different types of songs. With my original tunes, I’m trying to do what they did in early jazz without always doing exactly what they did, in other words use songs from various genres and within that make something new and different. Events in our personal lives and experiences should be an inspiration for new expressions and sounds.”
White, who leads his own Original Liberty Jazz Band, has also contributed to the preservation of traditional jazz through playing clarinet. Though it once held a prominent position in the music, unfortunately to him and many the clarinet has become a “secondary instrument.”
“I think it has had an important role in New Orleans jazz as a solo instrument and one that makes characteristic harmony as it blends with the trombone and trumpet. It makes a good voice for call-and-response with the trumpet and at jazz funerals its role is to represent a weeping widow. It adds great color and contrast to the brass instruments and it’s one of the defining instruments of New Orleans jazz. It’s king!”
Though White suggests that for a lot of people tradition is “a concept or a catchword rather than a reality,” he nonetheless remains optimistic on the style’s future. He’s encouraged by what he sees as a transition happening with younger musicians taking up the music and taking it seriously.
White also finds reassurance in the fact that New York’s Juilliard School, where he acts as a “guest coach,” now includes a course in New Orleans jazz in its curriculum. “All of the saxophone players have to learn how to play the clarinet and along with that they have to go back and learn the earlier styles. That’s a great, great thing.”
“I hold on to the hope of preserving the music in New Orleans especially among native New Orleanians and especially among people like myself, descendants of early generations of musicians.”